Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Focus on Social Justice

LAF Innovation and Leadership Fellows. Clockwise from top right: Nicholas Jabs, Jeff Hou, Pierre Bélanger, Liz Camuti, Diana Fernandez-Bibeau, and Hans Baumann

The pandemic didn’t stop this year’s Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) fellows in innovation and leadership from presenting the results of their year-long investigations. In an online symposium attended by more than a thousand people, six emerging leaders in the field of landscape architecture explained how design can help create a more just world. Each fellow received a $25,000 grant from LAF to travel, conduct research, and build their leadership skills.

Liz Camuti: Bad RFPs Set Back Resilience Planning Efforts

Liz Camuti, ASLA, a landscape designer at SCAPE (and we are proud to say, a former ASLA communications intern) told the story of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, the homeland of the tribe of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. More than 98 percent of the tribe’s lands have been lost due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. In 2016, the state of Louisiana received $48 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) to resettle the Isle de Jean Charles community.

Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana / Liz Camuti

After finding their concerns were ignored during federal and state planning processes, the community eventually decided to forgo resettlement. Camuti blamed the “so-called design solution handed down through the request for proposal (RFP).” This led her to examine the “centuries of problems with RFPs” issued by federal and state governments, and the awful position many planners and landscape are forced into of simply obeying the forms and “checking the boxes.” She called for communities and landscape architects to “uncheck the box” and push back against poorly-conceived RFPs.

As part of the RFP development process, all communities, and particularly indigenous ones, should be better consulted on how they want to be identified. Public participation processes, which are often a requirement, should be designed to air conflicts instead of minimizing them. Ample time should be given to establishing community ownership of a project through the creation of working groups and steering committees. Instead of coming in as experts, landscape architects need to reframe their relationship with communities with which they work and become much more humble about what they don’t know.

Diana Fernandez-Bibeau: Diverse Communities Need Heterogeneous Landscapes

“We design places for diverse species of plants and animals. Why not design spaces for diverse people?,” asked Diana Fernandez-Bibeau, ASLA, a senior associate at Sasaki. By studying ecology, which explores species diversity, and anthropology, which delves into human diversity, landscape architects can partner with communities to design places defined by “landscape heterogeneity.” This process involves weaving diverse social, cultural, linguistic, and environmental systems into a place.

Heterogeneous places are much needed, because there are already “too many homogenized public spaces in the U.S. that were not designed for people of color,” Fernandez said. “Landscapes are not neutral ground but poignant expressions of power.” Homogenized spaces are created by a colonizing power that minimizes difference.

As far as a process for creating heterogeneous landscapes, Fernandez argued that there is “no formula,” and what matters most is having a “state of consciousness” that is based in the “acceptance of the other.” She said diverse communities are more than capable of defining themselves. She pointed to the community design process for the new Frederick Douglass Memorial in Boston, in which an African American spoken word artist helped create a safe space for community sharing and spiritual growth.

Spoken word artist during community sharing process / Sasaki
Frederick Douglass Memorial design concept / Sasaki

Nicholas Jabs: Climate Change Is an Opportunity to Revitalize Middle America

“Middle America is too often ignored,” argued Nicholas Jabs, a designer with PORT Urbanism in Philadelphia, who gave a centuries-spanning overview of the region, from the Ice Age, which resulted in rich soil deposits, to the establishment of indigenous tribal communities, and the rise of fur traders. Communities like St. Louis, Chicago, and Minneapolis formed on rivers, because rivers were the major transportation system, but by the mid-1800s, railroads began to dominate and manufacturing spread.

Over the next few decades, middle American cities were transformed from “vertically organized” communities in which manufacturing co-existed with housing to “factory warehouse cities” characterized by the rise of “horizontal, specialized manufacturing zones” separated from housing. This led to urban and suburban sprawl, corporate campuses, and science parks. An ensuing multi-decade decline in American manufacturing was in part halted in the 00s by “flexible and urban” manufacturing that creates “high-quality crafts on demand.”

Climate change offers an opportunity for middle America. With its legacy infrastructure, resources, and manufacturing and distribution know how, middle America is poised to play a leading role in the mass mobilization of people and resources to reduce emissions and adapt communities. As communities address climate impacts, “we’re going to need to make and fix lots of things.” Middle America can lead with “craft, cultivation, community, and care,” which can transform the region once again.

Photovoltaic (PV) panel trees in middle America / Nicholas Jabs

Jeff Hou: A New Network to Grow Design Activists

Amid the grave environmental, health, and social justice issues facing the world, how can landscape architects make a difference? Jeff Hou, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, formed a design activism working group across universities and landscape architecture organizations, which resulted in a 50-page framework of action based in a set of principles. There are now 800 professors and students sharing ideas in a collaborative online community.

Principles include: politicize, which calls for “understanding that the built environment is a result of a political process;” hybridize, which involves increasing cross-disciplinary collaboration; and “glocalize,” a new word combining globalize and localize as a way to encourage intercultural learning and connection. Other key principles are: improvise; problematize, which means to re-evaluate complex, interconnected issues; authentize; re-organize; and democratize, which is a call for “re-examining our systems of justice.”

Hans Baumann: The Value of Immersion in the Culture of Indigenous Peoples

Hans Baumann, an independent landscape architect in Santa Monica, California, spent his fellowship with the Torres-Martinez Indians, whose 22,000 acre reservation is adjacent to the Salton Sea, California’s largest body of water. The sea is expected to lose a third of its volume within a decade because of climate change and agricultural water use, with major impacts for the cultural and spiritual practices of the tribe.

The Salton Sea is found within the footprint of the much larger prehistoric Lake Cahuilla. The Torres-Martinez have long had a deep cultural connection to the sea and the lands around it. Baumann partnered with the tribe on a series of slow creative projects, including community workshops and other landscape interventions with the goal of building relationships and trust with the tribe.

Landscape intervention at Lake Cahuilla / Hans Baumann

After two months of coordination, the tribe and Baumann were able to organize a kayaking event for tribal youth out on the sea, so that young people could create a “more positive relationship with the water.” Surveys showed that the tribal youth changed their perspective of the sea to “cool, fun, and awesome” after the event. He concluded that he invested in long-term relationship building and is purposefully not leading the way. “I don’t have the solution.” Baumann encouraged landscape architects to research the many tribes in the U.S., their historic homelands, and get involved, but to also recognize that “work is already being done in communities.”

Tribal youth kayaking on Lake Cahuilla / Hans Baumann

Pierre Bélanger: A Call for Accountability to Indigenous Peoples

Pierre Bélanger, a landscape architect, urban planner, and “settler scholar” who founded the non-profit organization Open Systems Landscape Architecture Lab, turned his screen black and read from an email he wrote to Brad McKee, the editor in chief of Landscape Architecture Magazine. He exhorted the audience to take greater responsibility for their historical impacts on communities and the environment. “Who are we — landscape architects — accountable to?,” he asked.

Bélanger called for greater accountability to indigenous peoples and an end of “settler capitalism,” which he argued still persists. “Since every square inch of land in the U.S. and Canada is treaty land, I wrote ‘No Design on Stolen Land‘ in Architectural Design Magazine earlier this year with a group of close colleagues that I had been working with over the past decade: Ghazal Jafari, Pablo Escudero, Hernan Bianchi Benguria, Tiffany Kaewen Dang, and Alexandra Arroyo.” He explained that “the article may seem foolishly polemical or unnecessarily provocative, or totally impractical as some have shared, but at a time when profound structural and systemic change is needed, we as practitioners and educators can no longer afford to ignore, let alone deny, the inseparable nature of climate change and colonialism to change the present.”

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